Thursday, March 23, 2006

Global Forums focus on Children in Cities

The World Urban Forum, World Youth Forum, and UNESCO's Growing up in Cities+10 will be held in Vancouver, BC this June, 2006. In the following essay to the Berkeley Prize Travel Fellowship committee, I proposed to take a delegation of Eugene's youth and interested adults and bring that energy and international point of view back with us to be presented to the city.

Eugene, Oregon is at a tipping point: downtown is being redeveloped, and planning decisions made in the next few months will determine whether the heart-of-the-city is a vibrant, economically viable place for children and their families, or a glitzy, expensive lifestyle center for singles and empty-nesters. Community input is volatile: public meetings and community forums are packed with outspoken citizens voicing various positions, and every day our newspaper carries at least one opinionated letter to the editor regarding the downtown redevelopment,
The key players don’t hold identical views. At a recent forum, a city representative commented that our downtown should reflect our diverse citizenry, yet from the opposite end of the speakers’ table, a developer complained that most damn liberals don’t understand the financial and marketing realities that drive development. I spoke up. With copies of my Berkeley Prize essay in hand, I quoted the compelling statistics I had already analyzed: families make up more than half our households, and families with children have and spend significantly more money than the childless. I could see the cash registers ticking away behind their eyes.
I am old enough to have witnessed the devastation that occurred during the 1960s when affluent families, abandoning the great American cities, took their money and fled to the suburbs in search of affordable housing, good schools, and open space. For many cities, this created sprawling suburbs while inner cores became increasingly blighted. Oregon pioneered land use laws that contained unmitigated growth, but now those laws are being systematically dismantled by “property rights” initiatives. This new reality means that unless the urban core can be made attractive to families, Eugene will see its families – with their money – attracted to characterless subdivisions increasingly farther from downtown.
Yet sprawl is not inevitable. As transportation becomes more expensive, and time becomes more valuable, too far away becomes just too far away, and families will leapfrog back into the central city. If the built environment does not accommodate families, it will be children’s lives that are contorted. Eugene must anticipate the future and take care that children are woven into the fabric of the city. Their fate will be determined by the weaver: as professionals, are we skilled enough to weave a complex and unique fabric? Can we construct a strong warp and allow our children to weave their own colors and textures into the weft? Or will we just set our looms to automatic and hope that our children can adapt?
Previous efforts to get families to visit and shop downtown have failed; a pedestrian mall was created by closing a main street; later, a playground was installed, hoping that mothers would drive into the city and patronize local restaurants and shops. It didn’t work: the “Professionals” had assumed they knew what would attract children and families instead of consulting the users themselves.
This time we can listen. In an impromptu charrette I conducted at a local middle school, students drew plans rich with trees and parks, rivers, bridges, and tunnels. They imagined living in the city, and drew their homes close to schools, friends’ homes, their parents’ workplaces, and familiar downtown businesses. Eugene is on the verge of becoming like so many other cities where, since planners can’t conceive that children live and belong in the adult downtown world, they make no effort to provide for them. Yet children are already enjoying diverse and interesting activities downtown, and are anxious for more access to them. In short, the success or failure of Eugene’s redevelopment may hinge on whether it embraces the needs of children and families. But I cannot get that word out by myself.

I propose to bring a delegation of middle and high school youth to GUIC+10 and the World Youth Forum. I am a fifty-year-old mom: not a youth. Empowering the youth of Eugene to expect more from their community and to act on their own behalf, as well as seizing this rare opportunity for them to understand and experience youth of different cultures, is a chance of a lifetime: Vancouver, BC is a drivable distance. I have already contacted teachers, principals, and ministers to convene a group of interested, activist youth.
Having grown up in a different time and place, I must look at the activities – especially the World Youth Forum – not only through my own eyes, but also through the eyes of my entourage, respecting their agendas, and collating and editing their documentation. We will post to a blog, expressing ourselves through writing, drawing, photography and storytelling. Commentary will be encouraged by networking in Eugene with officials, educators and families. Through this process, I hope to candidly capture all the energy and creativity of our young citizens and leaders, and establish their credibility as contributors to our city’s future.
At the same time, the Forums will serve my own professional, adult needs as well. My career goals extend beyond creating a shining downtown mecca for families in Eugene. I’ve worked with children and community development professionals in the slums of India, and witnessed how empowered women can change lives in their community. Mass urbanization is happening globally and I want to work in the international community. Can cities really sustain themselves independently? What collateral damage do politics and conflict effect on cities that can’t? How does the creation of public space enhance democracy? The questions are beginning to be answered, but the solutions are overwhelming.
That reality is what brought me to the study of landscape architecture and environmental design. Policy, priorities and ethics are made tangible through how we choose to design and what we choose to build. I want to design spaces to enable better living, be it through healing gardens or urban plazas. Yet, design is one place that I still can be considered youthful and naive. Although my expectations are high, my process is still as immature as any other fourth year student’s. In the Global Studio, I look forward to working with students from other cultures who have insights different from my own, as well as professional practitioners whose experience cannot be fully expressed in an academic setting.
Finally, independent of the forums, I want to see whether Vancouver’s downtown really works for kids. A New York Times article said that even with a newly-built school downtown, there are so many school-age children that they are bussed to outlying schools. I see high-rises in the photos and wonder if the street life really is conducive to children’s participation. Do children play independently in the parks? I want to watch children leave for school and parents go off to work. I want to see who is outside at what hours, where they go, where families shop, and what restaurants they frequent. Do only wealthy people live there? Or are different economic levels represented? Who benefits?
Why, at age 50, do I still think I can change the world? Because I know people who have; I have too. We all do if we keep going, and we need to because we are sensitive to the cries and prayers we feel from around the world. We just have to keep plugging away, and when conferences such as GUIC, WYF and WUF come up, we need to attend them for inspiration and support.

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